Thursday, April 30, 2009


This is an essay that Sandra wrote as part of her study for the Master of Gastronomy course

Mead has a long and rich history. It is generally acknowledged as the first alcoholic drink known to man dating back about 8000 years.1 2 It is a beverage resulting from the fermentation of honey and water producing “honey wine”.3 Mead was ubiquitous in ancient civilisations worldwide, for example Vikings, Teutonic tribes, the Celts, Chinese, Mayans and Ethiopians. There are many references to mead in early writings, such as the Sanskrit text Rig-Veda, and the epic poem Beowolf. In 70 B.C.Pliny recorded a mead recipe.4 It has cultural associations with pagan gods, magic, rituals, festivals, medicine the church and the nobility. The rise and fall of its popularity and significance has been greatly influenced by agricultural developments, technological advances and sociological factors.
It is likely that mead was discovered accidentally, perhaps created by fermentation of honey diluted by rain and trapped in hollows in trees,5 centuries before man had any understanding of yeast and fermentation.6 Fermentation is the process by which yeast and some bacteria metabolise carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.7
It was first described by Pasteur in 1857.8 The alcohol produced is toxic to the yeast. If there is sufficient sugar, the yeast will make enough alcohol; to kill itself. If there is an excess of sugar this results in a sweet drink. If there is insufficient sugar the yeast will stop dividing and no more alcohol will be produced. Unfortunately it may not taste good. Over 160 varieties of yeast and some bacteria are capable of fermenting sugar, many producing off tastes.
Our Neolithic ancestors must have tasted mead and been profoundly affected by it. As the resulting mind altering and mood elevating effects of alcohol could not be explained, it was reasonable to regard it as infused with the spirit of the Gods, with magical and sacred properties.9 10 The history of mead is shrouded in mythology. It was known as Nectar/ Ambrosia by the Greeks; ‘food of the gods’. Odin was said to have existed on mead alone.11 The Thriae, prophetesses at Delphi, known as ‘Melissae’, honey-priestesses, derived their inspiration from a honey intoxicant.12 Honey was thought to descend from the heavens in dew before being collected by bees, the messengers of the Gods.13 Mead played a significant part in ancient Norse rituals, especially the blot and sumble.14 The sumble is a drinking ritual where stories poetry and oaths were shared. The blot is a sacrificial rite. The original animal sacrifice was replaced by mead, and poured onto the ground or altar. In Celtic tradition mead was thought to enhance virility and fertility and have aphrodisiac qualities15. It was drunk from large communal drinking vessels called mazers. In Celtic wedding ceremonies newly weds were encouraged to drink mead for a month to increase the likelihood of a male heir, which may be the origin of the word ‘honeymoon’16
Before cultivation of grapes and grain wild bees were wide spread. Although some nomadic tribes carried knowledge of the natural fermentation of honey the geographical distribution of mead suggests that people independently discovered these skills. In Medieval times mead making was the province of a select and trained guild that controlled production and distribution17. At the time of the harvest hives were raided and the honey sent to the Lord to produce ‘high mead’ and as a sweetener. The wax, used for candles, medicinal salves and jewellery making, was dropped into vats of boiling water, melted, cooled and removed leaving a residue of sweet water. This was fermented by wild yeasts and made the ‘small mead’, which was drunk by priests and commoners.18
A variety of spices and herbs and fruits were added to mead to produce better tastes or to add curative properties. Metheglin may have ginger, tea, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander cinnamon, cloves or vanilla. Methglin derives from the Welsh meddyglyn meaning healing liquor and was originally employed in folk medicine .19 It was used in the treatment of melancholia, circulation, stomach and lung maladies20 The alcohol in mead provided a source of nutrition as well as the unsuspected benefit of sanitation, its manufacture destroying many pathogens in unsafe drinking water.21
Numerous factors reduced interest in mead. Sociological changes after defeat of the Norwegian King Harold and the Norman conquest in 1066 left the Norse in disarray and led to a greater French influence on British drinking habits22, and shifted interest towards viniculture and wines. With the industrial revolution and mechanical separation of wax from honey, there was insufficient honey left to make commercial quantities of mead.23 It requires warmer temperatures and longer fermentation than beers or wines.24 It is also more labour intensive and thus there is little scope for mechanization. It is unsuited to mass production. As agriculture developed and the availability of grapes and grains increased honey remained relatively scarce and expensive. With the use of hops beer became more stable and consistent with better taste. Thus beer and wine gradually replaced mead. Increasing urbanization and readily available cheap sugar also contributed. Since the 19th century mead making has survived as “an artisan craft void of large scale commercialisation”,25 however it has continued to be drunk, and even remains the national drink in Ethiopia known as T’ej26
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in mead. Standard bearers are monastic societies and organizations like The Society for Creative Anachronisms
(SCA) that endeavours to accurately recreate pre Renaissance culture.27 The internet provides further stimulus with a wealth of information about every aspect of mead. There is an International Mead Festival and an International Mead Association.28 This resurgence is partly due to an interest in our past, to novelty, to meads association with nature, its cheapness and due to the fact that the ingredients are universally available and the process for making mead is essentially simple.
Throughout its history, as described in this essay, mead is seen as an exemplar of the role of alcohol in society. It caused inexplicable mood changes distortions inperceptions of reality and “… might have been thought to bring man closer to the gods”.29
Communal drinking is a social act facilitating bonding and was integral to many rituals.30 Mead provided calories and a bacterially safe liquid. Mixed with herbs it had medicinal attributes, it elevated the spirit, relieved pain and liberated man from daily tensions.
Mead has failed to maintain a major place in our culture today because of competition from beer and wine. The culture of grape wine and beer drinking has been surrounded by a mystique that cannot be matched by mead. Technological advances, mechanization and social factors have all played a part. Schramm believes that the reputation of mead as a powerful aphrodisiac, regardless of its verity, and the enthusiasm of the SCA, will ensure that mead will always have some place among our wines.31


1 Richard Cornish, The Age, Epicure, July 24, 2007.
2 ScienceDaily, Dec 07, 2004. Accessed 30/03/2009.
3 Don and Patricia Brothwell, Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, “Ancient Peoples and Places” Thames and Hudson, London 1998. p145
4 Wikipedia. Accessed 28/03/2009.
5 Richard B, Webb, The History and Magic of Mead, Accessed 30/03/2009.
6 Sky River. “A Brief History of Mead” Accessed 30/03/2009.
7 New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol 4 Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 15th Ed Chicago, 2005. p740
8 New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol 7 Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, 15th Ed Chicago, 2005. p987
9 Webb. p1
10 Sky River. p1
11 Vicky Rowe. Gift of Gods, Drink of Kings, “”. Accessed 03/03/2009.
12 Harrison, Jane “Mead: Nectar of the Gods” . Accessed 03/04/2009.
13 Sky River p1
14 Lewis Stead. Mead: The Brew of the Gods “Internet Book of Shadows” Accessed 28/03/2009.
15 Stacey Slinkard, Honey Wines are on the Rise” Accessed 26/03/2009.
16.Webb. p1
17 Lady Bridget. and Lord,Riekin. “A Brief History of Mead” Accessed 18/03/2009.
18 Wikipedia
Joan P. Alcock. Food in the Ancient World “Food Through History” Westport, Connecticut, London. Greenwood Press. 2005. p 91
20 Maxwell of McLaren Vale “Meads History and Recipes” p1 Accessed 26/03/2009.
21 Webb p1
22 Ken Schramm “The Compleat Mead Maker” Brewers Publications, 2003. p13
23 Schramm p14
24 Schramm p14
25 Lady Bridget p3
26 John Dilley, Dick Dunn, et al. “Mead”. The Mead Lovers Readme file, revision 14. Accessed 24/03/2009.
27 Schramm p15
28 Phillips p1
29 Conference 5. Principles of Gastronomy. Adelaide Uni. Assignment notes. 2009.
30 Schramm p16
31 Schramm p15

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